If there’s one thing to be learned from the story of Spellbound – a documentary that charts the journey of eight young students as they make their way to the final of the National US Spelling Bee – it’s that hard work pays off in the end. And we’re not just talking about the children involved in the competition, who have memorise over half a million words. First time director Jeff Blitz not only researched this compelling and touching documentary with painstaking depth and fastidiousness, but he also had to fund it himself using a pile of debt-inducing credit cards.
The result? A touching snippet of the American Dream, through geeky kids and pushy parents, and enough awards to fill Manchester United’s trophy cabinet, including an academy award nomination. What does this spell for the future of this obvious talent?
In Britain we don’t have spelling bees, can you tell us a bit about them?
As a cultural event, the bee is viewed with tolerance and scepticism by adults. There is something old fashioned about it, it seems, yet from the first moment I saw the bee in 1997, I knew that there was an American Dream story. As Alex Cameron, the former pronouncer of the bee said to me: the stage of the National Spelling Bee looks like a model U.N. And it’s true. Actually, it’s also true of the words themselves that are used in the bee. They have come into the English language from all over, reflecting patterns of immigration as much as the kids themselves do. And I think the choice of stories tended to reflect my interest in the American Dream angle. With the help of Yana Gorskaya, Spellbound’s amazing editor and herself a Russian immigrant, we further teased out that idea as we cut.
And why did you decide to make a film on the contest?
I believe that creative people never really know what shapes their work. They can hazard a guess but, in truth, it’s a pretty unfathomable process, the way in which life influences work. But I will say this; I was always struck by my mother’s work ethic in specific and by my parents’ emphasis on education. It wasn’t irrational or simply competitive on their part but part of a larger belief that through hard work one could advance oneself. That kind of old-fashioned idea was incredibly contemporary for me.
Here’s another thing about my background: I grew up with a significant stuttering problem and, contrary to the good sense of everyone around me, I decided to become a high school debater. While there’s a natural connection here (my stuttering prompted me to think about the power and influence of language long before my fluent pals) there’s a bigger connection for me – I’ve always been impressed by people who try to do the nearly impossible. I’m just a sucker for those kinds of life’s quests. For me, that was debating; why on earth would a bad stutterer want to debate? It wasn’t self-destructive behaviour, it was a desire to do what the world said I couldn’t. I think, from the first time I saw the National Bee in 1997, that I sensed similar quests for many of these kids.
Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary is virtually insurmountable and unlearnable. There are almost a half a million words, many of them arcane. What thirteen-year-old in his right mind would think that this book could be conquered…and by a kid, no less?
How’s your spelling?
Is it true that you had to fund the film using credit cards?
It is. We funded the film on fourteen credit cards. Late in the game, we got a small grant from a foundation, but we largely did this ourselves, with the help of family and friends.
Who would you say are the biggest characters, the children or the parents?
I think the children are, but the parents also play a vital role. Without the parents at all, we would have no film. Without the children, there’s no story worth following.
It’s interesting that you were able to get a group of spellers who were vastly different in character and social background. Can you say something about the process involved in selecting the children?
In 1998, I did extensive research into two areas. Firstly, I wanted to find great human interest stories. So, talking with past champions, bee officials and spelling coaches, I tracked down leads on stories, such as Angela, Neil and Ashley. Secondly, I wanted to find kids who had done well at the 1998 bee and were likely to go far in the 1999 competition. We wanted subjects who were likely to survive far enough into the final rounds to give our audience kids to follow for the duration.
We had a list of about 30 or so and culled that down to twelve or thirteen. Most we covered before the nationals. A few we picked up at the nationals and then went home with them after. I’m really gladdened that Spellbound manages, without really trying to, to represent the amazing diversity at the bee. There are kids at the bee from every imaginable American background – socio-economic, racial, cultural, religious, educational, familial – and Spellbound does a decent job of having a good cross-section of the bee represented.
Some of the kids who were remembering their past failures, recounted their spelling errors with almost mechanical precision, as if it had been drummed in through repetition. Were the children academically bright or were they just word sponges?
Most of the children were very bright. I think that there’s a way to study spelling that makes it a window into bigger things. It can inspire deeper or wider reading; it can prompt the beginnings of more trenchant understanding of language, or history, or of patterns of immigration. But apart from that, I think the real benefit here comes not from spelling, but from learning the value of dedicating oneself to an impossible task (to know all half a million words from Webster’s unabridged) and seeing it through.
The kind of drive that requires is nothing short of astonishing. And, I think, the kids who feel the rewards of having committed to something like that are better able to tackle the big and rough problems that life will throw their way. Anecdotally, we found that many of the past spelling be champs go on to become doctors. Very few lawyers or writers in the bunch but a tremendous amount of MDs. Maybe that’s because these people aren’t afraid of weighty tomes or are able to memorise many, disparate facts. Who knows? I think that it supports the idea that it’s not the spelling per se, but the pursuit of spelling greatness that’s of real value.
Who’s been the most popular speller with audiences?
Harry, I’d say. He’s just so expressive and open with his thoughts and feelings. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in his spelling process.
You’re a first time director with an Academy Award nomination and a host of other accolades. What do you do from here?
Sleep. And lots of it.